Tale of the Tape: UConn defense vs. USF

David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

The UConn defense got back on track with a dominant performance, albeit against one of the worst offenses in college football. Can the Huskies do it again against steeper competition?

All together now….

"Woof"

Last Saturday, the Husky defense didn’t allow a single touchdown, let alone permit one USF drive to penetrate the red zone. Bull quarterback Bobby Eveld averaged a miserable 3.8 yards per pass attempt. USF runners gained around 3.6 yards upom every hand-off.

Yet, UConn still lost.

To be overly honest, a performance similar to this should’ve been expected against an offense that hasn’t looked like an FBS unit nearly all season.

Nevertheless, it was still very nice to see nearly 60 minutes of sound defensive football, after Buffalo bludgeoned this group two weeks ago.

While it’s clear now they will never be close to the shutdown defense from a year ago, these Huskies can still carry games.

The key will be generating and holding on to turnovers. Youngsters Marquise Vann and Obi Melifonwu both let interceptions slip through their fingers against the Bulls, which arguably was just as big as the pass drops we discussed yesterday on offense. Either pick would’ve set the offense up with a short field, and provided the opportunity to at least kick a game-tying field goal.

These errant passes must be caught going forward, beginning this weekend against Cincinnati. The Bearcats, standing at a respectable 4-2, have 16 combined fumbles or interceptions this season. Thus, more opportunities will come a knocking.

Can this defense answer the door?

In a few days, we should know. Saturday’s final gun will signal the season’s midway point. To this mark on the schedule, we’ve seen this unit fulfill its potential as recently as last Saturday, while also fall far short multiple times of what it’s capable of accomplishing. One more game in either direction should indicate what kind of defense this will be.

Therefore, as interim coach T.J. Weist put so perfectly in his first ever press conference, it’s time to get to work.

Keep it up:

Linebacker run fits

Defensive line gap discipline

Downfield coverage against scrambles

To Fix:

Four-man pass rush

Butterfingers

Second-teamers’ tackling

UConn’s gameplan

In efforts to more easily combat USF’s frequent use of an unbalanced line, the Huskies never strayed from their various 4-3 fronts into a 3-4 alignment. This was the first game all year UConn did not stand a defensive end up for a single snap, and simultaneously deploy Shamar Stephen as a nose tackle. Overall, their calls were fairly vanilla, though defensive coordinator Hank Hughes did dial up one, highly effective zone blitz in the second quarter.

The Huskies favorite defenses against the Bulls were those we see most often from them generally, quarters and Cover 1. Knowing it was facing a limited quarterback with a tendency to scramble, UConn primarily sat back in zone coverage fronted by a four-man rush. Excluding the instances in which an extra lineman was trotted out, they did not make any sort of special adjustment for the USF running game. Frequently, both safeties stood back deep, and rarely was any Husky sent on an unusual blitz.

USF’S gameplan

In the early going, USF surprised with a high number of first down passes, but that was about it for things not found on the scouting report for the Bulls. As told by multiple UConn defenders postgame, the Husky defense had a great grasp of what their opponent wanted to do, and they largely put the clamps down on those things.

USF attempted to execute its traditional power run game that occasionally features an extra offensive linemen. The Bulls ran to the weakside of these formations more often than they had before, but rarely enjoyed consistent success on the ground no matter what they tried. In the passing game, Eveld attempted to find Andre Davis on nearly every drive through hi-lo concepts, crossing route combinations and off play-action. He also targeted young cornerback Jhavon Williams on many dropbacks.

Only one pass was attempted deep downfield all afternoon, but USF put the ball in the hands of 12 different skill position players on the short and intermediate levels. This formula didn’t change from start to finish.

FIRST DRIVE 3 plays, -4 yards, INTERCEPTION

Eveld put our scouting report on him into action on the first snap of the game by immediately going to scramble after his first read was covered up. The result was a two-yard loss, which USF soon recovered on second down via a three-yard Pierre run. Next, Byron Jones picked off the Bull quarterback, and consequently was credited with the lone Husky turnover on the day. Though, the shoddy turf in East Hartford should receive just as much recognition for the play.

On third and eight, the Bulls aligned in the ‘gun with two receivers split to the right side of the formation.

Int_1_medium

Prior to the snap, Eveld motioned one of his backs out into a slot position.

Int_2_medium

Now standing as a receiver, the Bull runner ran a "go" route as a part of a common zone defense beater known as a "Dig-Seam". This pass design instructs the inside pass catcher to run straight up the middle of the field to drag zone defenders away from that area. Simultaneously, an outside receiver will run a 15-yard in-route or "Dig" into the recently vacated space. See the design below under the name of "Dagger":

Screen_shot_2013-10-17_at_10

(courtesy of nationalfootballpost.com)

In this case, Davis was supposed to run the "Dig", but slipped upon making his cut. Eveld still anticipated his receiver’s break, and fired to the spot where he should’ve been. This put the ball right in Jones’ breadbasket for the easiest interception yet of his college career. In the final picture below, you can see Davis standing on the left after picking himself up as Jones hits the turf.

Int_3_medium

SECOND DRIVE 3 plays, 4 yards, PUNT

The first of six USF three-and-outs on the afternoon opened with another nice play by Jones, as he swatted a ball out of the hands of tight end Mike McFarland. Stephen then armed tackled Pierre on his way to a four-yard gain, before Eveld failed to connect with Davis on third down.

THIRD DRIVE 4 plays, 22 yards, PUNT

A Williams facemask penalty tacked on 15 additional yards to a short run by the speedy Derrick Hopkins to open this series. Vann then dropped a sure interception on the resulting first down, when Eveld unthinkably threw directly into triple coverage. Next, Tim Willman did a nice job of holding the edge and fighting three different Bull blockers to slow a three-yard Pierre hand-off. Finally, following a timeout called by USF coach Willie Taggart, the Bulls attempted a tight end screen to the left, which basically imploded to end the drive.

FOURTH DRIVE 5 plays, 45 yards, FIELD GOAL

After producing only seven non-penalty yards over their first ten plays from scrimmage, the Bulls got going here with a pair of 20+ yard gains. The first was a Darius Tice run up the middle furthered by poor tackling on the parts of Vann and Williams.

Tackle_pic_medium

Next, McFarland leaked out into the flat on a delayed release and caught a short Eveld throw, which he took around Jefferson Ashiru for 16 more yards. Now at the UConn 28 yardline, USF failed to advance any further on a couple incomplete passes and negative run.

FIFTH DRIVE 5 plays, 14 yards, PUNT

Taggart called for yet another first down throw on the opening play, but this time it bore success as Hopkins, uncovered by the defense pre-snap, raced nine yards on a bubble screen. The Bulls quickly moved the chains on a short run behind an unbalanced line to set up another first down pass attempt. Eveld failed to take advantage of the loads of time he was afforded against a stymied four-man rush, throwing off the mark to his fullback. The drive died soon after thanks to strong defensive line play against an inside run and short pass denied by a nice tackle-end stunt. Ashiru provided the pressure as an edge rusher.

SIXTH DRIVE 16 plays, 59 yards, PUNT

Prepare for the most frustrating drive you’ll ever read about. It had it all from third and longs converted on the ground, missed turnover opportunities and poor officiating. Here we go.

Ashiru and Yawin Smallwood combined to stop the first two Willie Davis hand-offs of the series, which began with the Bulls backed up against their own goalline. However, Davis shot ahead on a third down draw for 16 yards, aided by more poor tackling on the second level. Two subsequent incompletions normally would feel good for a defense, except when the latter pass attempt should’ve been an interception.

Obi Melifonwu dropped a deflected second down pass sent high into the air by the two defenders blanketing Hopkins, who was the intended receiver.

Obi_int_medium

Facing another third and long, the Bulls again went to a draw and converted against the Huskies’ dime package, featuring three linemen, two linebackers and six defensive backs. A clean cutblock on Smallwood cleared the middle of the field for the Bull runner, who barely made it to the sticks. Eveld then took his team backwards five yards with a throwaway and sack, courtesy of Julian Campenni.

Next came the poor officiating. The referees inexplicably retracted an originally flagged block in the back call made against Andre Davis, which for all intents and purposes sprung Pierre for 16 yards and another first down. Had the penalty been enforced, USF would’ve faced an impossible third and 30, and likely would’ve brought out its white flag to end the drive.

81_bitb_medium

Instead, it continued, and Eveld failed once again to take advantage of a clean pocket by misfiring on first down. A slow developing weakside screen then moved the chains before Eveld finally connected with Davis on a strong outside throw. Immediately afterward, the Bull quarterback scrambled for eight yards to the UConn 29 yardline, where the drive stalled out on two incompletions and a holding call.

SEVENTH DRIVE 3 plays, -15 yards, PUNT

A pair of third down penalties ruined any USF hope of gaining a fresh set of downs on the initial series of the second half. Before the infractions, Stephen did a nice job of eating blocks to allow the linebackers to make their run fits.

EIGHTH DRIVE 3 plays, 0 yards, PUNT

Stephen showed up once again, this time with a sack of Eveld on second down. The redshirt senior threw the Bulls’ right guard into reverse en route to dropping the helpless signal caller. Vann made a couple sound tackles on this drive, too.

NINTH DRIVE 3 plays, 4 yards, PUNT

Pinned once again against its own goalline, USF went deep off play-action to Davis, who watched the ball crash to the turf yards ahead of him at midfield. Eveld tossed another ball off the mark on third down to bring on the punt team. Between the incompletions, Smallwood fought impressively through a double team to halt an inside run.

TENTH DRIVE 3 plays, 4 yards, PUNT

A four-yard Davis scamper and dropped swing pass by Hopkins set the table for one of the few four-man pressures UConn generated all afternoon. Ashiru and Rueben Frank pushed the tackles backwards and forced an easy throwaway.

ELEVENTH DRIVE 13 plays, 65 yards, FIELD GOAL

Until this gamewinning series, the Bulls had produced a grand total of negative seven yards over the second half. There was no significant change in scheme or playcalling here, just simply better execution and a couple inside runs that benefitted from the strange absence of Stephen.

After a decent opening run was negated by a false start penalty, McFarlend turned Willman inside with a strong run block to pave the way for a nine-yard gain on second down. A missed Husky assignment then allowed Eveld to find fullback Ryan Eppes in the flat for nine more. Back-to-back runs into a Stephen-less interior ensued and garnered 14 yards for another fresh set of downs.

Now positioned on the Husky side of midfield, Eveld did what Tim Boyle couldnd’t and saved his best for last. He roped a 17-yard pass to back-up wideout Ruben Gonzalez, and two players later, rifled the ball to Davis along the sideline for twelve.

On the first of the final three snaps, Smallwood snuffed out a power-o run to the left for little gain. Facing second and long, Eveld stood inside a clean pocket and dropped another dime downfield, this time to the end zone. However, second-stringer Stephen Bravo-Brown failed to reel it in, and the Bulls settled for a field goal after Ashiru crushed a third down draw.

TWELFTH DRIVE 3 plays, 7 yards, PUNT

Each of Ashiru, Vann and Smallwood took turns stopping Pierre on different run schemes to force the final punt of the game.

Bottom line: There was little to be gained from a contest like this, except the affirmation of what was felt while watching the Buffalo game—it was an aberration. The Husky defense did its job, but failed to take advantage of critical turnover opportunities. The margin for error only grows thinner from here, but the ability to walk the tightrope is still undoubtedly there.

Follow Andrew on Twitter for all things UConn Football: @UConnFB_Andrew

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